By Andy McDonald
RICHMOND — When it comes to the future of Richmond and Madison County, dream big.
That was the message Friday at a luncheon hosted by the Richmond Chamber of Commerce.
Approximately 60 community leaders attended the event that encouraged participants to offer their visions for the future of the city, brainstorming ideas from infrastructure and retail development to downtown revitalization.
Other concepts discussed included how to best develop Interstate 75 Exit 83, revitalizing Big Hill Avenue and strengthening the relationship between the city and Eastern Kentucky University.
During the session, attendees broke into small work groups and then presented their ideas for community improvement to the full assembly.
“We would hope that the partnership between the university and the town be more than one of tolerance, of mutual coexistence,” said Robert Blythe, who is both a Richmond city commissioner and former longtime EKU professor. “We need to see ourselves (EKU and Richmond) as authentically partnered.”
Blythe shared a number of ideas outlined by his Town and Gown work group, such as encouraging local business owners to mentor EKU students, establishing a business incubator to encourage student entrepreneurs and fostering opportunities for positive interaction between the university and the community at large.
In one example, Blythe cited a “senior” prom sponsored by one of EKU’s university clubs in which college students would host a social event for the elderly. He said that type of deliberate outreach between diverse groups is critical to building a stronger Richmond.
“We need to decide that Richmond will be the best college town in America and then do the things that will make that a reality,” Blythe added.
Participants offered a number of other possible solutions within their areas of interest.
Those addressing revitalization of downtown suggested constructing a parking garage, improving storefront facades, adding green space and fountains, and encouraging the creation of nonchain local businesses – cafes, bookstores and other retailers.
The group tackling redevelopment of Big Hill Avenue offered a number of ideas, including landscaping, improved walkability and family-friendly restaurants, parks or other destinations that would attract a wider variety of consumers.
“There’s not a reason to go to Big Hill except for maybe happy hour,” said one participant, drawing laughs from the crowd. “So we need to create a destination that will draw people.”
Creating more retail choices for consumers was another hot topic, as some participants suggested courting retailers such as IKEA and Target – businesses that would not only cater to the general community but would also serve consumers from the university.
If dreaming big was Friday’s objective, some chamber members certainly weren’t timid. Participants offered a diverse range of possible businesses for I-75 Exit 83, including a convention center, casino, an elite hotel, an outlet mall, a brewery, an industrial development center, a zoo and even a NASCAR track.
Some ideas seemed more quickly attainable than others, as some suggested the need to sustain the old Richmond Mall, establish a transportation link to Lexington’s Blue Grass Airport and add new eateries, such as opening a Malone’s at Arlington or a Cheddar’s – an establishment that in the past has expressed interest in a Richmond franchise.
For Tonita Goodwin, executive director of the Richmond Industrial Development Corp., merely entertaining new ideas for Richmond and Madison County, no matter how ambitious, is a step in the right direction.
“All of this is music to my ears. I’m loving every bit of it,” Goodwin said.
Richmond Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Mendi Goble said the chamber brainstorming session was critical for identifying common goals for the community, serving to rally Richmond leaders to dream big when it comes to the future of the city and Madison County.
She said the next step will be to consolidate the ideas from Friday’s session, then employ them to spark community action.
“This is just a perfect time to bring everyone together, because even though we all have our own areas, we want everyone’s ideas, too.” Goble said. “It’s not going to happen overnight, but it’s not going to happen at all without a plan. We have to start somewhere.”